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‘Opportunity’ for Syria’s Assad in quake outreach, analysts say

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'Opportunity' for Syria's Assad in quake outreach, analysts say

Syria’s politically isolated President Bashar al-Assad has received calls and aid from Arab leaders since a devastating earthquake Monday, a momentum analysts say he could leverage to bolster regional support.

The 7.8-magnitude pre-dawn quake has killed more than 16,000 people in Turkey and neighbouring Syria, already reeling from over a decade of conflict and years of economic sanctions.

Nicholas Heras of the New Lines Institute of Strategy and Policy said mobilisation to help quake victims offers Assad an opportunity to restore ties with some Arab countries, but “this humanitarian crisis will not exonerate his regime in Western states”.

“The horrible tragedy that has struck Syria and Turkey is a clear opportunity for Bashar al-Assad to try to advance the slow-moving… process of normalising his regime again with the rest of the Arab world,” Heras told AFP.

The Syrian president on Tuesday received a call from his Egyptian counterpart offering support, their first official exchange since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed office in 2014.

While Cairo and Damascus have maintained relations during the 12-year war, the Arab League suspended Syria in 2011 and some other Arab countries have severed ties with it.

The ruler of Bahrain, which re-established diplomatic relations with Syria in 2018, called Assad on Monday, their first official conversation in more than a decade.

The United Arab Emirates — the first Gulf country to normalise ties with the Assad regime after years of boycott — is spearheading regional relief efforts.

Abu Dhabi has already pledged at least $50 million in assistance and sent several aid planes a day since the quake.

Lebanon, which has adopted a policy of dissociation, sent on Wednesday its first high-level official delegation to Damascus since the start of the conflict.

‘Use the moment’

Relief efforts could pave the way for “a clear and open channel for sustained diplomatic engagement”, Heras said.

But Aron Lund of Century International think tank said the messages of support were “routine… after a major natural disaster”.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” the Syria expert told AFP. “Will there be more of these contacts, and will they be sustained beyond the immediate crisis?”

“The crisis may lower the threshold for bilateral contacts” between Damascus and Arab states that have so far been reluctant to normalise ties, he added. “Assad will try to use the moment.”

Saudi Arabia, which severed ties with the Assad regime in 2012 and had backed Syrian rebels in earlier stages of the war, has pledged aid to both rebel-held and government-controlled parts of the country.

Saudi aid will go directly to Aleppo’s government-controlled international airport as well as the Damascus-based Syrian Red Crescent, but there was no direct contact with the Assad government, an official at King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre told AFP.

Qatar, accused of funding rebels, has also swiftly pledged assistance despite no formal ties.

The earthquake could particularly strengthen Syria’s ties with rebel-backer Ankara, which have warmed in the months leading up to the quake, Lund said.
“Both countries now share a problem that goes beyond borders and political disagreements.”

Western aid

The Assad government has long branded the bloody conflict as a ploy by Western states, and blames crippling Western sanctions for a spiralling economic crisis.
But that has not stopped Syria’s outreach efforts after the earthquake.

Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said on Monday his government was ready “to provide all the required facilities” for international organisations to send aid.

And Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s UN envoy, announced it would accept assistance from any country.

The Syrian Red Crescent has called on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help, and an EU official said Syria has even made an official plea to the bloc.

For its part, the United States said Tuesday it was working with partners to provide relief but would stand firm against working with the Damascus government.

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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